Inside South Africa’s maximum security Groenpunt prison, hawk-eyed guards stroll between rows of wooden benches, watching inmates closely as they meet visitors.
Among the notorious jail’s residents is 51-year-old triple murderer Percy Chepape, an anti-apartheid fighter serving a 60-year sentence for his “politically motivated” crimes committed in the chaos that followed liberation in 1994.
The former underground operative of an armed group linked to the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) has been behind bars for 20 years, convicted of a deadly armed robbery on a benefits office in a remote town in the country’s north.
He claims the aim of the June 1997 heist, which was carried out with seven accomplices, was to raise funds to buy arms and ammunition to help those who broke away from the PAC defend themselves from violence.
He has since shown remorse and sought to apologise to his victims’ families, while the widely-publicised release of fellow activist Kenny Motsamai this year has offered a ray of hope.
Chepape was among 149 prisoners jailed for “political crimes”, who were considered for parole under a special pardon scheme launched in 2007. Some 2,100 applied.
Only 51 prisoners were found to be eligible and a task force has helped release 39 of them.
But Chepape is among the remaining 12 who do not know if they are still under consideration or will ever see freedom — leaving them in nervous limbo.
“I am paying for what I did, but a part of me feels that my sentence was punishment for who I was not what I did,” he said, folding his muscular arms.
“Sometimes I ask myself if my political activism was worth it.”
– Fight to end apartheid –
His breakaway group, the Revolutionary Watchdogs, rejected a negotiated settlement to end apartheid in favour of a forced takeover of the country from the white minority.
This put it at odds with other political groups, including the now-governing African National Congress (ANC).
“As a result we came under fire from faceless agents attached to the state and rogue ANC units,” Chepape told AFP.
Of the three people who were killed in the raid, two were white, and he was subsequently convicted of three counts of murder as well as robbery.
Chepape, a father of three from Katlehong township east of Johannesburg, said he received the harshest sentence despite not being directly involved in the killing.
“I drove the cash van after the robbery. I did not shoot,” he said.
“The heist was politically motivated, we did not do it for ourselves.”
The PAC, which holds only one seat in South Africa’s parliament, has been demanding the release of political prisoners like Chepape.
Many were sentenced before the end of apartheid in 1994.
The rollout of the 2007 pardons has been slow and beset by legal problems.
The process focused on cases that were not heard by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a tribunal launched to investigate apartheid-era political crimes and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It concluded its work in 1998.
– Conflicted history –
“Our case is forgotten and what we fought for and risked our lives for was in vain,” he said.
Officials have refused to comment on Chepape’s situation.
But he has been encouraged by the case of Kenny Motsamai, who was freed in January after spending 27 years in prison for the murder of a white traffic officer in 1989 during a heist.
Motsamai was serving a life sentence and had refused to apologise or show remorse for the killing.
“Apartheid was a crime against humanity, why do we as black people have to go and apologise to the whites?” Motsamai told AFP from his home.
Unlike Motsamai, Chepape has sought to make amends for his crimes.
“The families have turned down my request for a meeting to make an apology and I have accepted that,” Chepape said.
Chepape was left dismayed after white, apartheid-era murderer Eugene de Kock was paroled in 2015 “in the interest of nation-building and reconciliation”.
Dubbed “Prime Evil”, De Kock was in 1996 given two life sentences for heading an apartheid-era police death squad.
“It is very disappointing to hear that someone who committed far more crimes has been freed,” he said.
Back in Groenpunt, Chepape is still waiting, unsure what his future holds.